28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXIII

Options, hints and buttons should be unique and easy to tell apart.

Some of the most successful computer applications–Microsoft Office, iTunes, Firefox, Adobe Creative Suite–are popular not only because of their abilities, but also because users can employ those abilities in a variety of ways, making functions easier to find for first-time users, and at the same time faster for seasoned users to operate without disrupting their workflow. For example, those wanting to italicize a word or phrase in a word processor might find the appropriate option after a few seconds of poking around on the taskbar, while those more used to graphical interfaces, ribbons and panels may search for the more intuitive slanted I button that indicates italic text. Finally, users with a little more experience know that pressing Ctrl + I will italicize selected text within a document. These three options reach the same conclusion in separate ways, allowing users of any background to find the option they’re looking for as painlessly as possible.

There are downsides to this desire to reach users of every possible skill level, however. One that can be fairly obvious in some programs is the clutter of repeated options in both the graphical interface and dropdown menus, which prolong the time it takes to sift through buttons and lines of text to find the right option.

A well planned application will offer hints to let the user know how to more effectively access more common options, such as saving documents and exiting the program. For example, this dropdown menu offers alternate key commands for creating a new document, opening an existing one, saving, printing and exiting the program.

Another problem occurs when dealing with complex tasks, such as configuring a document to be printed. Using a desktop printer is rarely as simple as pushing the Print button, and with page configurations, different types of papers, inks, and hardware properties, the process often includes numerous settings over multiple dialog boxes. It is important for developers to make sure these commands are unique from each other, or they might cause even more confusion for the user.

The Print dialog box in Adobe InDesign has two separate buttons labeled Setup, leading to two different places. This is especially troublesome when trying to help a user over the phone.

Even more frustrating is this secondary dialog box displaying available printers. The box itself is simply titled Print, the same as the main dialog box, but the bigger problem here is the confirmation button, also labeled Print. Clicking this button won’t start the printer, but many users, not wanting to waste a sheet of paper by prematurely starting the process, will be apprehensive about selecting this poorly labeled button. A better choice would have been OK, setting this button apart from the final Print button, and consistent with other buttons that confirm settings but aren’t known to initiate printing. This will instill confidence in users who want to know exactly when they will be telling the printer to begin.

Planning an application as in depth and useful as InDesign, with multiple levels of interaction accessible to everyone from beginners to power users, is an extraordinary feat. I don’t have many suggestions for Adobe regarding the new incarnation of InDesign, but my main gripe is this oversight with the similarly labeled buttons. With a little more testing, I feel they would have found this redundancy to be resulting in user error and frustration, and could easily fix the problem by changing a few words around, distinguishing each button from the others and improving user confidence and understanding.

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